Push is on for Consumers to 'Buy Social,' Help Build a 'Better' Economy

Push is on for Consumers to 'Buy Social,' Help Build a 'Better' Economy

Advent calendar, holiday gift guides promote products and services from social enterprises

The sturdy wooden benches and flower planters gracing the outdoor space of a Vancouver housing complex have a story you couldn’t guess by looking at them. Each was crafted by a woman or youth facing a barrier to employment such as homelessness, mental health issues or single parenthood.

By buying these items from the women and youth, the housing complex makes it possible for them to earn money while learning and strengthening their employment skills and experience through two social enterprises operated by the non-profit Tradeworks


  A set of Christmas ornaments made by employees of Tradeworks' social enterprises.

The fact that the women and youth are employed by a social enterprise versus a traditional business is key. 

As social enterprises, Tradeworks' Women's Workshop and Rona Fabshop are set up to provide the additional supports that someone facing barriers to employment often requires.

Executive director Maninder Dhaliwal describes Tradeworks as making accommodations for people so that they have a “longer runway” to start or return to mainstream employment.

“We're an empathetic employer. If people have personal things they need to take care of, maybe they can only work three days a week or there is a single mother with four kids who has to give us notice the morning of to say she can't come in, we have other people to cover,” Maninder says.

Typically, people participate in Tradeworks carpentry training program and then work with the social enterprises for several months. About 70 per cent then move on to employment with “mainstream” businesses, which is the goal. Maninder says she believes Tradeworks would be seeing a much lower success rate if it wasn't able to offer a supported work experience – in addition to the training – through which people build their skills and confidence.

The added supports and flexibility increase operating costs for Tradeworks by about 20 per cent as compared to that of a traditional business, Maninder estimates. For that reason, the social enterprises must also rely on some government funding.

But they can't depend on funding alone. And that's where the social purchaser, like the local housing agency, comes in to play a pivotal role.

There's a lot of bright and hopeful traction around a “new economy.” Much of this is being driven socially-minded enterprises such as Tradeworks. But the shift must also have consumers on board.

A key barrier to people “buying social” is the status quo, says Aaron H. Emery a B Corp communications fellow with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing in Toronto. 

“In recruiting more 'purposeful purchasers,' it is a problem because there is a population that will continue to buy what they've always bought because it’s what they've always bought. And before them, their parents bought it that way too. The first and greatest hurdle is just getting people to realize that other options do exist,” Aaron says.

The good news is that a number of recent efforts in Canada and abroad, especially in the UK, have been focused on raising awareness of these options.

Aaron himself led a volunteer project this fall to create a B Corp Holiday Gift Guide that introduces and educates people on some of the “better” options that exist in the marketplace, with the intent of driving dollars to these better businesses.

“The gift guide provides bite-size examples that friends, family and colleagues can talk about over an afternoon coffee,” he adds, noting the hope is that the gift guide “takes these conversations about the future of capitalism out of an academic or theoretical sphere and makes it something that is happening here and now.”

In the UK, a Christmas gift social enterprise Advent calendar is now available online. The calendar highlights social enterprise products for people to share with family and friends.

Also in the UK, a campaign called Buy Social recently launched to promote the purchase of socially-conscious goods and services. 

In Canada, the Social Enterprise Council of Canada is exploring the emulation of the UK campaign in some form. The council is also considering the creation of a “social enterprise” certification that would make it easy for consumers to spot socially-conscious goods and services.

Considering these and other shifts, including the push from more young people wanting to work in socially-conscious businesses, Aaron “feels pretty good” about the social purchase options people will have as consumers in the coming years.

“I do think that we are approaching a time where what we expect of most businesses at most times will look a whole lot more like B Corps,” he says.

“It's like smoking. Do people still do it? Of course. But less than 20 years ago you could light up in the waiting room of the best hospitals in the world. What do you think would happen if you tried that now? Our social expectations have changed.”

Related Stories:
Holiday gift guides from across Canada make it easier to “buy social” this season

Give a gift, build real community wealth this holiday season

You can comment below, or e-mail michelle(at)axiomnews.ca.

A version of this article was originally written for the Enterprising Non-profits Canada news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post. To learn more about generative newsroom options for your organization or community, please contact peter(at)axiomnews.ca.

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